Alchemy and iatrochemistry in Early Modern pharmacy

In the end of the Middle Ages and during the Early Modern period (16th-18th centuries) a series of practitioners experimented with the properties of matter. Alchemists, iatrochemists (future chemists) and pharmacists used the same procedures and the same laboratory equipment, but to different ends: to turn common metals into gold and to create the Philosophers’ Stone, to synthesize chemical substances and to prepare medicine. In the second half of the 17th century and first half of the 18th century, pharmacy increasingly adopted chemical ingredients against organic ones, largely borrowing the language, tools and symbols of iatrochemistry.
The caduceus, a staff with one or two snakes coiled on it, was the symbol of both pharmacy and alchemy. The staff of god Asklepios/Aesculap, associated with medicine and healing, had a single coiled snake, while the staff of Hermes/Mercury, the messenger of the gods, associated to commerce and negotiations, often had wings and two coiled snakes. In alchemy the caduceus was a symbol of primary matter, of chaos, balanced by the two snakes coiled in opposite directions, while Hermes became the patron of alchemy as well.
Alchemical caduceus depicted during the 18th century as symbol of pharmacy inside the History of Pharmacy Collection in Cluj

Alchemical-like names were also employed as product branding strategy, in order to increase sales. Thus, a series of popular apothecary products reminded one of the name of the famous Elixir of Life. Thus, the Elixir of Health for example, a brandy drink containing aniseed, raisin, saffron, and other ingredients, was sold as tonic and cure-all.
Read also about the Visceral Elixir HERE
Learn more by visiting the Pharmacy and Alchemy exhibition that opens on July 3rd 2017 at the History of Pharmacy Collection in Cluj-Napoca!

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